Verses Of Vanquishment: The Bangladeshi Bhasha Andolan Of 1952

The Bhasha Andolan of 1952 shows us how Language was used as ammunition firstly, in oppressing an entire community, and secondly, in finding solidarity within the community.

Debarati Mitra
New Update
Bengali Bhasha Andolan

Image Source: The Daily Observer

Identities, it is said, are characteristics, behaviours, beliefs and expressions that form a unique picture of an individual or a group. Similarly, a social identity is what links us to our primary and secondary groups while also indoctrinating in us, their particular cultures. While one has to get crafty to sociologically define the term “Culture”, it can be invariably agreed that language plays a central role in it. Language has always been a major factor of sentiment for its speakers- imbibing in them a sense of togetherness and belonging. 


Moder gorob, moder asha,

Aa-mori Bangla bhasha.’

(Our pride, our hope

My Bengali language)

- Atulprasad Sen 

History is testimony that scrimmage unravels every time a group’s cultural integrity, in any form, is tampered with. With the advent of the year 1952, the world witnessed a distinct protest that had, at its core, language as the main propellant. What would be known decades later as the International Mother Language Day, was originally the Bhasha Andolan (Language Protest) of the Bangalees in former East Pakistan, that sowed seeds of the Bangladeshi Liberation War of ‘71. 

After the partition of the Indian landmass in 1947, the Pakistani Government had two geographically separate lands which were thus named West and East Pakistan. West Pakistan was home to a populace fluent in Urdu, while the Province of East Pakistan provided a stark difference to that by housing the Bangla-speaking citizens of divided India. Language was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to cultural comparison between the two parts of this highly anticipated ‘One Nation’. 


Why The Bhasha Andolan Changed Landscape 

The East Pakistani culture was more similar to the Hindu Bengali culture of India like women draping sarees and suiting bindis irrespective of their religion, than the Islamic culture of West Pakistan. The similarity in culture was owed to the undivided dominion of Bengal pre-1905, and the close proximity and shared kinship bonds in the two regions post ‘05. The nature of the East Pakistani culture came from the syncretism of both Hindu and Islamic traditions, mores, folktales and oral narratives. This divide in cultural backgrounds of the two Pakistans formed the basis of the Bhasha Andolan and thereafter proved to be a conundrum to the government. 

The Bhasha Andolan took off on the wings of three main actors- the West Pakistani elites and its military junta, the East Pakistani Activists, and lastly, the Bangalees of East Pakistan. The exhibit of power dynamics between the West and the East boiled down to feelings of racial superiority, with senior officials from West Pakistan even going as far as publicly quoting that they ‘will not be ruled by these black bastards.’, two decades later, during the Liberation War of 1971. 

To restore the territorial oddity that it was, the Pakistani Government passed a ‘One Nation, One Language’ policy in hopes of igniting in the two separate populations, feelings of brotherhood and solidarity. The one official language that they imposed was Urdu, which the West Pakistani Government elites were fluent in. The inconsiderate decision was directed at obliterating Bangla from the lexicons of the East Pakistani Bangalees and making them adopt Urdu as their national language. This was opposed by government officials and the masses, alike. As Dorothy Deb mentions in her work, learning Urdu and gaining the cultural capital that would acquire them recognition among the West Pakistani Elites would take generations for the Bangla-speaking Pakistanis- especially the Government elites. 

The introduction of Urdu as the language of the Government also gave rise to feelings of underrepresentation of East Pakistani culture in the official spheres of the Pakistani Government. This underrepresentation and denial of recognition of the ethno-linguistic difference made the Bangalees face a second wave of invisibilized colonisation at the hands of the West Pakistanis. The reality of being a second-class citizen in their own land flickered a movement for constitutional justice and cultural tolerance. 

Dhirendranath Dutta proposed the motion to make Bangla a national language in the Constituent Assembly on February 23, 1948, but it was opposed by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. During the four years of the Bhasha Andolan, the Awami League came into existence and renewed, in the people of East Pakistan, the hopes for another chance of getting their demands met. 


In 1952, Maulana Bhasani of the Awami League created a new protest schedule. Anticipating an outrage from these people, the Pakistani Government enforced Section 144 banning all public gatherings. Protest marches and hartals against Section 144 were organised on February 21, 1952. Police charged students from Dhaka Medical College, who were protesting, with batons. The police opened fire on them, killing three protestors and a nine-year-old and wounding other demonstrators.

In other parts of Dhaka, over 30,000 people gather for a mourning parade and ‘gayebi janaza’, a funeral prayer performed without the presence of the deceased. The police fire at the procession killing several citizens. Colleges, banks, and radio stations witnessed officers and clerks abstaining from work to participate in the procession. Two prominent news organisations that support the government, Jubilee Press and The Morning News, get ablaze by protestors. Chants of ‘Joy Bangla’ (Hail Bangla) filled the streets of East Pakistan. 

The Impact Of Songs Of Solidarity

Songs of solidarity were sung across East Pakistan to garner support for Bangla to be recognised. Stalwarts of Bangla Literature like Atulprasad Sen composed verses like, 

Ki jaadu Bangla gaane, 

Gaan geye daar majhi taane, 


Geye gaan naache Baul,

Gaan geye dhaan kaate chasha,

Aa-mori Bangla bhasha.’

(There’s magic in this song, 

The boatman rows his oars to this tune,

The Baul dances to this tune, 

The farmer harvests rice to this tune,

My Bengali language)

to signify solidarity in all sections of the community. To defy all this, the only method adapted by the Pakistani Government was brutality and even more forceful imposition. 

The demonstrators became more adamant in their demands as a result of the police crackdown. Additionally, it compelled the administration to progressively abandon its position on "one state, one language."  In 1952, the East Bengal Legislative Assembly passed a resolution endorsing Bangla as a state language. On May 7, 1954, the Constituent Assembly officially recognized Bangla and Urdu as state languages and gave the Bangalees their due share of respect. 

The Bhasha Andolan of 1952 shows us how Language was used as ammunition firstly, in oppressing an entire community, and secondly, in finding solidarity within the community. If analysed, solidarity was the very component that the Pakistani Government wanted to induce in the two portions of its nation; the method deployed for that proved to be a misfit. For the East Pakistani population, who had by then suffered geographical displacement once during the 1905 partition of Bengal, their ‘bheeta-maati’ (property and soil of the homeland) was already seized. The blow of 1947 brought with it the threat of being stripped off of their culture and language, the only remaining links to their motherland. The national identity of being a Pakistani was in direct conflict with the ethnolinguistic identity of the people, resulting in a protest to shield the latter. 

The ignorance levied towards Bhasha Andolan in debates of events related to the  Indian Independence, is often compensated by discussions on present-day Pakistan and Punjab. It is necessary that we talk about this protest that has, in common, a cultural legacy with the eastern part of our country.  Way before India could face the gory realities of partition in 1947, Bengal faced it in 1905, birthing the current-day West Bengal and Bangladesh. The bloody histories of one of the first provinces under British India to be partitioned deserves more recognition, in hopes of providing justice to the martyrs of ‘Bangla Maa’. 

Authored by Debarati Mitra, For ‘Protests, Movements and Transformations’, M.A Sociology, 1st Semester, 2023-25. 

Bengali Language Bhasha Andolan